Lower Silesian Offensive Operation

This was the Soviet offensive by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front to clear the German forces from much of Lower Silesia and take Breslau, the provincial capital (8/24 February 1945).

The offensive was undertaken in parallel with the 'Upper Silesian Offensive Operation', and followed directly from the 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation', in which Konev’s forces had driven Generaloberst Josef Harpe’s (from 17 January 1945 Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s) Heeresgruppe ‘A’ (the redesignated Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’) from Poland, liberating Kraków and taking bridgeheads over the Oder river.

The Soviet forces involved in the 'Lower Silesian Offensive Operation' were provided by the right wing of the 1st Ukrainian Front, namely General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army, General Leytenant Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 4th Tank Army, General Polkovnik Vasili N. Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army, General Polkovnik Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army, General Leytenant Vladimir A. Gluzdovsky’s 6th Army and General Polkovnik Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 52nd Army. Facing these Soviet forces was the left wing of Heeresgruppe ‘A’, namely General Friedrich Schulz’s 17th Army 1 and General Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 4th Panzerarmee 2.

Konev intended to break out of the Steinau bridgehead (on the Oder river in the area between Glogau and Breslau), which had been secured at the end of the 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation', on 8 February using three combined-arms and two tank armies. German intelligence had detected the shift of the Soviet forces from Upper Silesia in its early stages, and the Oberkommando des Heeres had put three divisions, two of them still in the process of being rebuilt, at Schörner’s disposal. Schörner also had to concern himself with the Brieg-Ohlau bridgehead, also on the Oder river in the area to the south of Breslau, where two armies and two tank corps had for several days been threatening to break through the German line and cut the army group’s lateral lines of communications forward of the Sudetenland. Schörner had therefore relocated the boundary between the 4th Panzerarmee and 17th Army to give the former responsibility for the Steinau bridgehead and the latter for the Brieg-Ohlau bridgehead.

The Soviet attack was preceded by a 50-minute artillery preparation, and the assault forces crossed their start lines at 06.00 on 8 October. On the first day the 3rd Guards Tank Army battered its way out of the southern end of the Steinau bridgehead and the adjoining small bridgehead at Leubus, and by the fall of night had reached the outskirts of Liegnitz and started to wheel some of its elements to the south-west behind Breslau. On 10 February the 3rd Guards Tank Army advanced past Liegnitz to the Bober river below Bunzlau.

To the north, the 4th Tank Army overran the Panzerkorps 'Grossdeutschland' and took Primkenau, 6.75 miles (11 km) to the east of the Bober. In order to frustrate the attempts of the 4th Panzerarmee and 17th Army to prevent the Soviet thrusts out of the bridgeheads from meeting behind Breslau, Konev used the manoeuvre he had employed to the east of the Oder river in January: he turned the 3rd Guards Tank Army to the south and in three days of heavy fighting encircled Breslau, in which there were 35,000 troops and 116,000 civilians, by 15 February. Meanwhile the 3rd Guards Tank Army had closed the gap to the west, only elements of Generalmajor Hans Wagner’s 269th Division managing to withdraw.

The main Soviet thrust continued to the west and crossed the Queiss river, and to the north-west across the lower reaches of the Bober river in the area to the north of Sagan. The Hitler-designated 'fortress' of Glogau, in which there were 4,100 troops and 7,800 civilians, was encircled.

Relieved temporarily by the 3rd Guards Tank Army’s turn to the south, the 4th Panzerarmee on 14 and 15 February counterattacked along the Bober river to the north of Sagan, cutting behind the 4th Tank Army, which was pushing toward the Neisse river. On 14 February, the remnants of the Panzerkorps ‘Grossdeutschland’ and the XXIV Panzerkorps mounted a counterattack which left the 4th Tank Army in a desperate fight to avoid encirclement. The Germans were unable to close the encirclement, however, and therefore ceased offensive operations within five days, when the 52nd Army and 3rd Guards Tank Army were able to secure the flanks of Lelyushenko’s position.

By 16 February the 3rd Guards Tank Army had turned to the west once more, and was ready to strike across the Queiss river toward Goerlitz. Schörner committed one Panzer division in a flank attack from the south, but this did not even slow the 3rd Guards Tank Army. By 18 February the 4th Tank Army had cleared its lines to the rear, and in the next three days five Soviet armies closed on the Neisse river between its confluence with the Oder river and a point 4 miles (8 km) to the north of Goerlitz. From here the front angled to the east and slightly to the south in an almost straight line to the Oder river at Oppeln.

On 21 February the Oberkommando des Heeres advised Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler’s Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel' and Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' that the Soviet main effort would be made on the Oder-Neisse river line between Schwedt, on the right flank of the Oder river front of Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel', and Goerlitz, and that the expected thrusts toward Berlin and Dresden would probably be accompanied by secondary offensives into Pomerania and toward Moravska Ostrava.

Five days earlier the eastern intelligence branch of the Oberkommando des Heeres had come to the conclusion that because of the good progress of the Soviet operations in Lower Silesia and Pomerania, the Stavka had decided it no longer needed to concern itself about the Soviet flanks, and could proceed forthwith with the offensive into central Germany.

Reports from German agents on 15 February indicated that Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, operating to the north of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front, was thinning its infantry formations in Pomerania to relieve the 1st and 2nd Guards Tank Armies along the Oder river. By 17 February the two tank armies had pulled out of the Oder front and appeared to be regrouping in the rear for an attack to the west.

Along the river, agents and air reconnaissance were detecting large numbers of other indications to the development of an offensive: heavy artillery and anti-aircraft batteries were moving up, minefields were being cleared, changes were being made in radio traffic patterns, and new armoured vehicles and trucks were being delivered to front-line formations.

In the sector of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', the 3rd Guards Tank Army’s rapid turn to the west of Breslau revealed that it was concerned to reach the Neisse river as rapidly as possible. Air reconnaissance disclosed that the railway lines in Poland had been relaid in the area to east of Poznań, whose fortress held out until 23 February) and to the east of Breslau. In Lower Silesia, Soviet engineers were rushing to build bridges over the recently crossed rivers, a sure indication that the 1st Ukrainian Front planned to remain on the offensive, and from one of the Soviet tank corps the Germans captured maps covering the area between the Elbe and Neisse rivers.

Crossing the Neisse river in the face of the six divisions which the 4th Panzerarmee had located there should not have been difficult but, even so, on 24 February, in the face of heavy German reinforcement, Konev ended the offensive phase of his operation after securing a small bridgehead across the Neisse river near Forst. This effectively defined the start lines in that sector for the Battle of Berlin, or 'Berlin Strategic Offensive Operarion', from 16 Aporil. Schörner attempted to win back some territory during March with successful counterattacks at Lauban and Striegau, but an offensive designed to effect the relief of Breslau was disrupted by an offensive on the 1st Ukrainian Front’s right flank in the south-east, namely the 'Upper Silesian Offensive Operation'.

It is possible that the 'Lower Silesian Offensive Operation' had not proceeded as well as he had expected, for one two or three occasions the Germans had created situations which had, at the least, inconvenienced the Soviets, and the tank armies had not achieved a full-scale operational breakthrough. Most probably, though, the decision to stop the 1st Ukrainian Front on the Neisse river was part of a fundamental revision of Soviet strategy as a result of developments of which the 'Lower Silesian Offensive Operation' was only a part.

Behind the Soviet front, the Battle of Breslau, also known as the Siege of Breslau, lasted for three months between 13 February and 6 May.

It was in August 1944 that Adolf Hitler declared the city of Breslau to be a Festung (fortress and ordered that it was to be held regardless of cost. Hitler named Karl Hanke, the Gauleiter of Silesia since 1941, as the city’s Kampfkommandant (battle commander).

On 19 January 1945, the majority of the civil population was instructed to leave, many thousands dying in the bitter cold during the extemporised evacuation. Then German troops, aided by Volkssturm elements and slave labourers, turned the city into a military fortress able to stand a lengthy Soviet siege. Much of the city centre was demolished and turned into an airfield for the delivery of supplies. Late in January, a Hitlerjugend regiment arrived to reinforce the garrison of Festung 'Breslau', and another element of the defence was Obersturmbannführer Georg-Robert Besslein’s 1st SS Festungs-Grenadierregiment, which included Dutch and French volunteers.

On 2 February Generalmajor Hans von Ahlfen became the garrison commander of the Festung 'Breslau'. Ahlfen, who commanded for only three weeks, had been personally selected by Schörner, commander of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', but on 2 March was replaced by Generalmajor Hans von Niehoff, who remained in command until the fortress’s surrender on 6 May.

Breslau came under siege within the context of the 'Lower Silesian Offensive Operation' on 13 February. The besieging force was Gluzdovsky’s 6th Army of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front, and the Soviet encirclement of the city was completed during the following day. The besieging forces were the XXII Corps, LXXIV Corps and 77th Fortified Region, as well as a number of smaller units.

There are great differences in the estimates of the number of German troops in Breslau, some sources claiming that there were as many as 150,000 defenders, some 80,000 and some as few as 50,000.

The siege of Breslau took the form of devastating and bloody urban combat of the street-by-street and house-by-house nature. The city was bombarded into a total ruin by the artillery of the 6th Army and the warplanes of the 2nd Air Army and 18th Air Army, and during the siege each side resorted to setting entire districts of the city on fire.

On 15 February, the Luftwaffe began an airlift to aid the besieged garrison: in the 76 days to 1 May, the Luftwaffe flew more than 2,000 sorties with supplies and food, delivering more than 1,462 tons of supplies.

On 22 February, the 6th Army occupied three of Breslau’s suburbs, and on the following day troops of the 6th Army entered the southern part of the city proper. By 31 March there was heavy artillery fire into the north, south and west of Breslau’s suburbs. On 4 May the city’s three most senior clergymen demanded that von Niehoff surrender the city, but the general dismissed the clergy without a definitive answer.

On 6 May, after 82 days of siege and only two days before Germany’s unconditional surrender, von Niehoff yielded Festung 'Breslau' to the Soviets. During the siege, Soviet forces had inflicted approximately 30,000 or according to some sources 60,000) military and civilian casualties, and took more than 40,000 prisoners, while themselves suffering total loses in the order of 60,000 troops out of a committed strength of 87,334 men. Breslau was the last major city in Germany to surrender, and by this time Hanke had fled to Prague.

Some 80 to 90% of Breslau was destroyed, this including many houses and three churches which the Germans themselves demolished after their loss of Gandauer airfield to allow, as noted above, the construction of an airstrip 6,560 ft (2000 m) long and between 655 and 1,315 ft (200 and 400 m) wide.

Breslau was transferred to Poland in the aftermath of the war and renamed Wrocław, and most of the German inhabitants then fled or were forcibly expelled between 1945 and 1949, and moved to Allied Occupation Zones in Germany.

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This comprised General Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Edelsheim’s XLVIII Panzerkorps, General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s LVII Panzerkorps, Generalleutnant Otto Tiemann’s XVII Corps, General Walter Hartmann’s VIII Corps and the garrison of the Festung ‘Breslau’.
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This comprised General Walther Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps, General Dietrich von Saucken’s Panzerkorps ‘Grossdeutschland’, General Sigfrid Henrici’s XL Panzerkorps and the Gruppe ‘Friedrich’.